The University of Newcastle, Australia

Learnings from the UK?

Monday, 28 April 2014

During the past couple of weeks, we were delighted to host the Vice-Chancellor from the University of Essex, Professor Anthony Forster, who travelled to Australia to visit UON. Essex turns 50 this year, so it is almost the same age as UON, and our two institutions are similarly placed in the independent global ranking systems.

Professor Forster's visit was a solid 48 hours of briefings and information sharing with our University Council and senior leaders covering a range of topics including our new Leadership Framework (which he considered outstanding) and shared challenges. A key part of his visit was to lay the foundations for future areas of collaboration between our two universities including across research in areas such as big data, epigenetics and linguistics; and through staff exchanges.

While here Professor Forster shared his experiences about the higher education sector in the UK, which is currently undergoing a seismic shift with the move from a system primarily funded through government block grants, towards one in which funding is paid to students through repayable tuition loans that they take to the institution of their choice. While some government support for research remains, the onus is increasingly on institutions to fund their research activities via other means including through student fees.

Our conversations with Professor Forster on the UK experience came at an interesting time for the Australian higher education sector with the Government preparing to introduce the next era of reform. Tonight in London, the Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne will deliver a speech that many predict will take the sector further along the path towards deregulation and greater competition. The Minister is anticipated to accept the key recommendations of the recent Kemp-Norton review, which includes allowing non-university higher education providers to access Commonwealth funding to support student places in their degree programs.

My view is that Australia may indeed benefit from a diversified higher education system but it is important in any major policy shift, first 'do no harm'. We need to be very clear about what defines a university, and what quality and regulatory frameworks will remain to protect the international reputation of our university system as more providers enter on a for-profit basis. We also need to be very careful that any move towards fee deregulation does not limit the opportunities for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to access a degree program in a research-intensive university.

The Kemp-Norton Report commended universities for their careful response to the demand-driven system – let's not lose the momentum of increasing access and participation by all Australians to a first-rate higher education experience at a time when Australia needs to compete on the world stage in terms of productivity and innovation.

It will be interesting to hear tonight how far along the path of fee deregulation the Minister has travelled and whether he is prepared to provide any insights on the challenges for higher education in the upcoming Budget.

The Minister's speech tonight and this Government's first Budget may well foreshadow a new era for Australian universities. The question is: will Australia feel the aftershocks of the UK's seismic shift to deregulation?

Best wishes


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